Slab Happy

At 20th Street and Grand, the Abdiana Building is a familiar landmark in Kansas City. Local skateboarders know the location as one of several downtown spots with stairs, steps and handrails built unintentionally to their specifications. A few weeks back, Zach Wilson headed to the Abdiana for that reason, carrying a digital camera he’d bought only days before with money he made by selling his car.

Once he was there, Wilson began filming his crew as they skated. The images were meant to be part of a film that Wilson, the owner of a local skate shop, hoped to produce and market by next December.

Then the cops showed up.

Wilson had had run-ins with police before. Most of them were before last fall, when the climate worsened considerably for skaters downtown. That’s when Mayor Kay Barnes pronounced an end to downtown skating by calling a press conference at Barney Allis Plaza — arguably the best skate spot in Kansas City and, as the setting for well-known skating videos, easily the most famous (“Barbarians Rule,” November 7, 2002). To a crowd of bemused reporters, Barnes announced that the Kansas City Police Department would aggressively bust skaters to prevent further damage to the downtown infrastructure (though she suggested no link between skaters and the hundreds of metal plates covering city streets).

Now Wilson and his friends were face-to-face with the police.

The cops delivered a clear, concise message underscored with a slip of paper handed out to each person guilty of skating downtown.

“You guys are getting a skatepark,” one officer said, handing out fliers for a July 29 skatepark design meeting.

Wilson had to laugh. But not because of anything the mayor had said or the cops had done. Wilson laughed because he already knew about the meeting. Hell, he practically set up the damn thing.

Almost every week for the past six months, a ragtag group of City Hall employees, civic activists, area skaters and, yes, police officers has assembled to create an urban skatepark in Kansas City. They started with no money, no site and little momentum.

But today, they have $270,000 in the bag (with more fund-raising planned), a go-ahead from City Hall to build at Gillham Park south of 39th Street, and preliminary blueprints on the way from the Arizona-based SITE Design Group.

“This skatepark is going to be world-class,” Wilson says. “It’s going to be on-point.”

To create something world-class, the task force will have to generate close to $1 million. But this is a start, and an impressive one considering that the whole thing started with a negative speech by the mayor.

Shortly after Barnes’ press conference, then-City Councilwoman Teresa Loar and city parks planner Roger Coleman volunteered to cochair a new task force charged with finding a place for skaters to go. Predictably, the earliest meetings drew the most skaters, all of whom professed the need for a centrally located park. Skaters also slammed an existing skatepark in the Northland and others in corners of Johnson County. “There are four parks in Kansas, and they’re all F’s,” one skater said at the group’s first meeting.

As important as the issue was to local skaters, though, few of them could withstand the tedium of weekly planning sessions. But Wilson kept showing up. And though a number of people have made an impact on the project — city planners have lent their guidance, and Councilman Jim Rowland has pledged to fund the park with the 4th District’s public-improvement money — Wilson has been the consistent ambassador for the skaters themselves. If the park is on-point, it will be because of his input.

At 27, Wilson is old enough to remember when the expression city-built skatepark would have seemed like a contradiction. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have skateparks at our disposal,” he says, sounding like an old man. “Now there are hundreds and hundreds of them [around the country].”

In the past year, Wilson has made trips to parks in Louisville, Kentucky, and Chicago. Both were teeming with skaters from various states. “Kansas City might as well have a piece of that,” he says.

Many local skaters share his opinion, but none has been as integral to making it happen. But then, Wilson knows something about investing in Kansas City.

A few years ago, he decided to open his own skate shop. He knew he could locate in Johnson County, situate himself between two suburban skateparks and catch the traffic going back and forth. Instead, he signed a lease for a shop at 12th Street and Grand, where he also planned to live. After two break-ins, one of which cost him most of his belongings, Wilson fled Grand.

But not downtown. In April 2002, he opened his shop on 18th Street, between Baltimore and Wyandotte, on the same block as Y.J.’s Snack Bar. He called it Lovely.

Among the new location’s perks, it puts Wilson close to Barney Allis Plaza. It’s also just a few blocks from the offices of Crawford Architects, where the skatepark task force has met almost every Thursday for the past several months.

During that time, Wilson has steered the task force away from the sort of mistakes that doomed other skateparks in the region. Early on, he convinced his colleagues to work with experienced skatepark consultants, typically lifelong skaters themselves. Otherwise, he said, the city would wind up with awkward layouts and substandard surfaces — common complaints skaters lob at the metro’s existing parks.

Wilson has also been able to pass on the attitudes and opinions of younger skaters, many of whom are regular visitors to his shop.

On July 29, around thirty of those skaters showed up at the Gregg Community Center at 18th and Vine for the design meeting — the one for which police officers had been handing out fliers. After listening to a brief presentation by a SITE representative, they pored over layouts of the company’s previous projects in cities throughout the country and circled what they wanted at the Kansas City park.

Earlier that day, the task force had chosen Gillham Park for the future park. (The group still needs approval by the parks board. In the meantime, task force members hope to drum up support from surrounding neighborhoods.) The task force liked Gillham for its high visibility, for its parking possibilities, for the fact that it’s big enough to handle future expansions and, naturally, for its urban location. The bonus is that skaters already go to Gillham Park, lured by a structure near the wading pool known as “the slabs.”

“People know that spot,” Wilson says. “That’s one of the only places in Kansas City right now where you can go and skate, and a million cops can pass by and they’re not going to stop you.”

Less than a year after the mayor threw a stake in the ground and declared, with smiling scorn, that downtown was off-limits to skaters, the climate has somehow improved for skaters all over town.

Not that Barnes gets any credit from the kids shopping at Wilson’s store. “We hate the mayor,” says a twelve-year-old who has stopped at Lovely following an afternoon on the town.

Older and wiser, Wilson approaches the subject with a more productive slant. “You have to thank Mayor Barnes,” he says wryly. “None of this would have happened if she hadn’t slandered the skateboard community.”

Categories: News